What Do Arab Third Culture Kids Tell Us About the World

Wednesday 17 January 201809:56 am
Our relationship to our homeland has been an urgent question throughout the history of humanity, frequently pursued and debated. Greek culture produced an interesting tradition in which our connection to the land becomes almost "literal." The concept of the "autochthones", from which we have the word "autochthony", was coined from the Ancient Greek autos “αὐτός"  meaning "self," and khthon "χθών" meaning "soil"; "people sprung from earth itself." Achilles’ heel and Oedipus' scarred feet, two well-known moments in Ancient Greek mythology were manifestations of this tradition, according to Dr. Peter Struck, professor of Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. The Arabs were at the other end of the spectrum, depicting a unique relationship to the land that not only recognized change, but mourned and accepted loss and constant departure. "Standing by the ruins of the beloved encampment", or al-wuquf 'ala al-atlal, was a poetic tradition used as a prelude to poems in Jahiliyya times, whereby poets described the pain of watching the departure of the beloved's tribes caravans, then transitioned to discussing other topics. For centuries we have debated and contended with the two different traditions and their implications. Today, we are once again faced with an age-old question: how does a rising, young generation grapple with issues of  migration, immigration and displacement, which have become increasingly important and distinctive features of the world today? More specifically, what insights do "Third Culture Kids" in particular present us?

Third Culture Kids

Third culture kids, sometimes referred to as "TCK", are defined as children raised outside of their culture or home country during their formative years. Third culture kids usually feel no allegiance to an individual nation, lacking an emotional tie to both the parents’ homeland and to the country they have  been raised in. The parents’ culture serves as an obstacle for the child from fully assimilating into the culture of the adopted country and vice versa. If the children identify too closely with their parents’ culture, then they will be missing out on integrating in their new country. This is also the case if the child identifies too strongly with their home culture. It will be perceived as cutting ties with their roots. Feeling like a third culture kid is common amongst the Arab youth due to repercussions of major political events in the region that resulted in the formation of a diaspora community. This large Arab-population abroad has grown to be less in touch with its roots, and the new generation is constantly torn between adapting to  Western values and preserving their tradition. Of this, Georgetown Professor Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad, writes: "On the one hand is the generation of the fathers, mothers, and grandparents who have an emotional and cultural tie to the original homeland, who hold on to the customs and traditions, whether or not they accord with the new environment. On the other hand is the generation of the children, and grandchildren, and have no emotional ties to the homeland and find little value in their customs, which are seen as counterproductive, an impediment to progress in the society in which they have been born," Y. Haddad, "The Globalization of Islam", The Oxford History of Islam (2000). There are features that distinguish third culture kids, Ruth Van Reken tells us. They are "four times more likely to earn Bachelor's Degrees"; they also "experience prolonged adolescence", "have problems relating to their own ethnic groups", and "maintain a global dimensions throughout their lives". Third Culture Kids often share, a worldview that understands diversity as an organic feature of human existence. 

Home is "everywhere and nowhere"

The subtitle is a quote from Kate Mayberry's BBC piece "Third Culture Kids: Citizens of Everywhere and Nowhere" (2016), in which she points out how TCK's "rootlessness and restlessness" comes with the sense that home is “everywhere and nowhere.” This could perhaps be a helpful starting point to understand when and how, in some cases, TCK insist on conceptions of their homeland that are "static", homogenous, and unchanging. The conspicuous absence of any serious debate about TCK in the Arab world is quite curious. The term TCK and most major studies about this phenomenon come from the West, focusing limited attention on migrant worker communities in the Arab world. But what about the Arabs, who in the last century alone, experienced seismic events that resulted in displacement and mass migration within and without the Arab world? Two main reasons could explain the situation. First, a commonly-shared assumption that Arab culture is homogenous means that a move from one Arab country to another is not seen as “displacement." The second and more pressing reason is the Palestinian cause, which has greatly impacted the formation of Arab cultural and political attitudes. The laws in many Arab countries do not give citizenship to Palestinians even when born and raised on its land, as a way to reflect commitment to the Palestinians' "Right of Return" and to avoid the dilemma of implicitly approving of the Israeli presence in Palestine. The discussion of TCK was muted against these two elements and in deference to an overwhelmingly emotional yet stable definition of belonging. The present article attempts to address and highlight the perspective of Arab Third Culture Kidd, in a short conversation between the co-authors of this piece: Danny Sakka and Yasmine Salam.

Yasmine: So, where are you from?

Danny: London…

Yasmine: Do you consider yourself English?

Danny: I feel as if I am lying if were I to say that I’m English. Why do I not feel English? My Arab ethnicity prevents me from feeling truly British. If I were to tell an Englishman of my Arab origins, he or she will not see me as English, therefore I won’t identify myself as one either. Nevertheless, I am a Londoner through and through. It is the place I grew up in and I know the streets like the back of my hand.

Yasmine: So would you say you feel more Arab?

Danny: I feel as if I’m lying by saying that I’m only Arab. My parents are Syrian/Lebanese, we speak Arabic at home, our home-cooked food is Levantine and we go back to Beirut several times a year. However, when I’m on the plane to Beirut, I don't feel like I’m going home and therefore don't  feel the same excitement that other passengers on the plane might experience. While I’m happy to preserve my Arab culture, it feels adopted rather than a true sentimental bond. It’s nice to belong to a community, but at times, you think: do I fully connect? When do you feel a connection with your roots? When I have to get defensive. If someone insults or is cynical towards Arabs, which is common today, then it is my duty to defend my parents’ and in this case, my identity. This is when I feel patriotic.

Yasmine: Would you fight for your country?

Danny: What country would I possibly fight for? Lebanon? No. Britain? No. For America? No point answering.... As a third culture kid, I don’t really know what it’s like to love my country or be patriotic. I just wouldn’t risk my life for an agenda which I don’t believe in or feel a lack of affection towards and thirdly, kindly name me a war in the last 70 years which hasn’t been a war of over-exaggeration. The fact that today’s major wars are taking place in the Middle East creates further resentment on the behalf of third culture kids from Arab countries. If global powers helped the people that live unknowing whether they’ll be alive the next day, rather than choosing to pursue their own interests, then I would support war. The prospect of world peace is something that speaks to third culture kids, particularly Arab ones. If our culture was portrayed more favorably and in a less threatening manner by Western media, then this could be possible. As long as the mutual hatred between Arabs and Westerners continues, world peace is merely an idealist view.

Yasmine: Having Syrian parents and growing up in London, how do you feel about popular resentment towards refugees in Europe?

Danny: While it is difficult to digest, I am starting to understand the view on both sides of the spectrum. On the one hand, Arabs are perceived by Europeans as undemocratic, backwards and stereotyped as radical and violent. On the other hand, Arabs perceive Western culture as hedonistic and immoral; therefore having experienced both cultures, I understand why integrating into European life can be difficult and unrealistic. Having said that, it still saddens me that my two cultures can’t coexist on a larger scale. To complicate matters further: "Are Levantine ethnicities Arab"? In a world of political correctness, can I ask the question: Is the clash a cultural one or a religious one? The problem is that people who are anti-immigration maintain a strong bond with and love their country. It is abundant that in the West, patriots are reactionary in that they want to revert to the pre-World War II system of closed borders and dampen the influence of International Cooperation and thus the Globalized system of today. If Britons cannot accept foreigners who come to their country, then I can’t consider myself British. Now what about you, Yasmine?

Danny: Where are you from?

Yasmine: Arab-British? British-Arab? Egyptian-Londoner? Londoner-Egyptian? One would hope connecting two seemingly distinct labels together would create an exotic category that I could easily place myself in. How wrong I was. I used to tell people that I am from nowhere. Every winter holiday as a family we would split our time between Cairo, Athens and London: three cities, which I should fully identify with due to my values, lifestyle and heritage. However this time would instead serve as a constant reminder of my lack of affinity to any one country or culture. I always left each place with a feeling of incompleteness - longing for a full immersion and understanding of them that I could never quite satisfy. Egyptian parents raised in 8 countries between them, a Greek step-dad and a permanent home address in London complicated the answer to such a rudimentary question. You can’t rehearse the answer either. I’ve tried and failed. It ends up sounding awkward, wrong and slightly pathetic. You pause, um-and-ah and then blurt out whatever first enters your mind. There’s just no winning.  Figuring out where someone is from is among the first things people ask. This social norm comes from the desire to label and categorize people in a way that makes sense. It’s an attempt to feel less intimidated, which is understandable,  but also very annoying. Why do I have to make sense to people? Most days I don’t even make sense to myself; yet I am expected to give this answer that will ease people’s perception of me! As a child I would scream when people uttered those four words. It sounds melodramatic but at least my seven year old self was honest about the frustration I felt. A mix of confusion, anxiety and sometimes even pain consumed me. It’s not socially acceptable to scream anymore when people ask that question. But that doesn’t ease the difficulty. Most people think the pain is fake and pretentious or just a call for attention. Who cares if you’re just a little bit more cosmopolitan and diverse than most people - deal with it. If anything I am one of the lucky ones right? Being exposed to a rich variety of cultures, histories and traditions from a young age is only a privilege. Perhaps it is,  but with this privilege comes a significant degree of toxicity. The toxic cloud, which hovers the third culture kid is not easily articulated but constantly felt. It’s all around you. Take the idealistic university setting of Georgetown in Washington DC. Even this supposed haven for diversity, free-thought and self-expression can feel isolating. As most international affairs students here aim to fix the world through studying politics, policy and conflict, I stumble and struggle with my  third-cultureness. Yasmine, “where do you want to go into politics? Back home in England?” Or, “ why not go to Egypt to try to fix the mess over there? Better yet, you have an American passport, you’re so lucky, you can work here!” While passionate about politics, I lack the emotional allegiance and loyalty to any single nation where I envision myself in office. Even sadder is the fact that even if I were patriotic enough, which nation would accept my loyalty? Does a British-Arab MP with a mid-atlantic accent sound electable to you in the borough of Kensington and Chelsea? What about an Egyptian Minister with broken Arabic and an Anglo-American education? Perhaps in this globalized world my generation will create a new set of values, which will give room for a new kind of politician that embodies these third-culture traits. However, the rise in the legitimacy of nationalism and ethnic-exclusion as a means to exercise power globally leaves me skeptical. In this current climate being Arab is hard; being “Muslim” (whatever that may mean) is even harder. Add those two charged labels to the quintessential package of a western education and the cultural atmosphere of the nations that essentially wrecked your heritage and things, as the Brits would say, got  a “tad messy” to define. So where am I from again?

A Message as Old as Humanity Itself

Going back to the Greek tradition, one particular work stands out. In The Odyssey,  as Professor Struck points out, Homer presents a different yet important understanding of home. For although the epic follows the adventures of its protagonist Odysseus as he journeys back home, it does not stop when he arrives there, but instead, concludes with a chapter in which Odysseus embarks on a new journey. It is as if,  Struck argues, the homeland—"nostos” in Greek— is woven out of the same fabric as "nostalgia", the unyielding yearning to return home.  Homer's message may be that people have always been, and will be "nomadic" and itinerate; with each new journey, humanity will  recreate a new meaning for "home".

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